On reading whitepapers

There is an ancient technique that can help you in achieving mastery in computer science. No, I don’t mean a “from zero to hero in 2 hours” kind of online course. Nope, I don’t mean a free ebook that you can get after registering to a mailing list. Oh, some kind of a certification? I don’t mean it either. What I’m thinking about, is some real mental heavy lifting. I’m thinking about reading whitepapers.

It’s funny that wisdom can hit you after some time. I still remember words of one of my lecturers, who said, that it would be more beneficial for us to go home and study on our own, rather than listening to him. The very same can be applied to complex and/or innovative algorithms, processes, approaches described in whitepapers. Consider the new and shiny CosmosDB from Microsoft Azure. It promises indexing data in any schema (using JSON as a payload format). How can you achieve it, considering a multi-tenant environment (no, you’re not alone in the cloud) and all the funky objects stored in the database? Here’s the whitepaper describing it. Is it dense? Yes. Is it not-so-easy-to-read? Yes. Is it worth it? In my opinion, yes.

We live in times, when you can often face an assumption, that we need to ship things ASAP and understand them in a fast and easy way. Whitepapers are probably the exact opposite. It takes time to learn how to read them. It takes time to read every of them. It takes time to verify and apply findings in them.

I wish you more time, more focus, more presence and strength for spending it properly.

Pearls: the protobuf’s discriminated union

Google Protocol Buffers is a proven protocol for serializing data efficiently. It has a wide adoption, enabling serialization for almost every platform, making the data easy to exchange between platforms. To store its schema, you can use .proto files, that enable describing messages in a platform agnostic format. You can see an example below:

message SearchRequest {
  string query = 1;
  int32 page_number = 2;
  int32 result_per_page = 3;

One of

Sometimes you want to define a message that will have only one of its fields initialized. This can be useful when sending a message providing a wrap around multiple types or in any other case that requires it. Take a look at the example, providing a wrap around three messages of the following types: MessageA, MessageB and MessageC.

message Wrapper {
  oneof OnlyOneOf {
    MessageA a = 1;
    MessageB b = 2;
    MessageC c = 3;  

Protocol buffers use a tag value to store any field. First, the tag (1, 2, 3 above) and the type of the field is stored, next, the value is written. In the following case, where only one field is assigned, it would write its tag, type and value. Do we need to create a class that will contain all the fields? Do we need to waste this space for storing fields?

Protobuf-net Discriminated Union

To fix this wasteful generation, protobuf-net, a library build by Marc Gravell, added Discriminated Union types that is capable of addressing it. Let’s just take a look at the first of them.

public struct DiscriminatedUnionObject
  private readonly int _discriminator;

 // The value typed as Object
 public readonly object Object;

 // Indicates whether the specified discriminator is assigned
 public bool Is(int discriminator) => _discriminator == ~discriminator;

 // Create a new discriminated union value
 public DiscriminatedUnionObject(int discriminator, object value)
  _discriminator = ~discriminator; // avoids issues with default value / 0
  Object = value;

Let’s walk through all the design choices that have been made here:

  1. DiscriminatedUnionObject is a struct. It means, that if a class have a field of this type, it will be stored in the object, without additional allocations (you can think of it as inlining the structure, creating a “fat object”)
  2. It has only one field for storing the value Object. (no matter which type is it).
  3. It has only one field, called _discriminator to store the tag of the field.

If you generated the Wrapper class, it’d have only one field, of the DiscriminatedUnionObject type. Once a message of a specified type is set, the discriminator and the value would be written in the union. Simple, and efficient.

Summing up

Mapping a generic idea, like a discriminated union, into a platform or a language isn’t simple. Again, once it’s made in an elegant and an efficient way, I truly believe that it’s worth to be named as a pearl.

The batch is dead, long live the smart batch

It lurks in the night. It consumes all the energy. It lasts much too long. If you experienced it, you know it’s unforgettable. If you’re lucky and you did not meet it, you probably heard these stories from your friends. Yes, I’m talking about the batch job.

The old batch

This ultimate tool of terror was dreading us for much too long. Statements like “let’s wait till tomorrow” or “I think that the job didn’t run” were quite popular a few years back. Fortunately for us, with the new waves of reactive programming, serverless and good old-fashioned queues, it’s becoming thing of the past. We’re in a very happy position being able to process events, messages, items as soon as they come into our system. Sometimes a temporary spike can be amortized by a queue. And it works. Until it’s not.

When working on processing 2 billion events per day with Azure functions, I deliberately started with the assumption of 1-1 mapping, where one event was mapped as one message. This didn’t go well (as planned). Processing 2 billion items can cost you a lot, even, if you run this processing on-premises, that are frequently treated as “free lunch”. The solution was easy and required going back to the original meaning of the batch, which is a group, a pack. The very same solution that can be seen in so many modern approaches. It was smart batching.

The smart batch

If you think about regular batching, it’s unbounded. There’s no limit on the size of the batch. It must be processed as a whole. Next day, another one will arrive. The smart batching is different. It’s meant to batch a few items in a pack, just to amortize different costs of:

  1. storage (accessing store once)
  2. transport (sending one package rather than 10; I’m aware of the Nagle’s algorithm)
  3. serialization (serializing an array once)

To use it you need:

  1. a buffer (potentially reusable)
  2. a timer
  3. potentially, an external trigger

It works in the following way. The buffer is a concurrent-friendly structure that allows appending new items by, potentially, multiple writers. Once

  1. the buffer is full or
  2. the timer fires or
  3. the external trigger fires

all the items that are in the buffer will be sent to the other party. This ensures that the flushing has:

  1. a bounded size (the size of the buffer)
  2. a bounded time of waiting for ack (the timer’s timeout)

With this approach, used actually by so many libraries and frameworks, one could easily overcome many performance related issues. It amortizes all the mentioned costs above, paying a bit higher tax, but only once. Not for every single item.

Outsmart your costs

The smart batch pattern enables you to cut lots of costs. For cloud deployments, doing less IO requests means less money spent on the storage. It works miracles for the throughput as well, no wonder that some cloud vendors allow you to obtain messages in batches etc. It’s just better.

Next time when you think about a batch, please, do it,  but in a smart way.